Isokuso – How Yoruba Language Influences Candomblé

by Iya Melissa

languageIsokuso means slang in Yoruba. While it’s undeniable that African languages did not survive as living languages in Brazil, there are several words – used by folks who are not even members of Afro-Brazilian religions – that have become part of the colloquial vocabulary.

Isokuso, a documentary by Dionysios Kostakis, takes us to a terreiro in São Paulo where we get a sense of both how Central and West African vocabulary survived in Brazil and how some words are used in a religious context and secular settings.

It’s not often that I strongly disagree with something that I share. I think this is an important documentary because it deals with both language and the diversity of Candomblé. Candomblé is for everyone; regardless of your sexuality or sexual preference, gender identity, race, nationality, social status or any other qualifiers that often separate people in society – everyone can practice Candomblé and worship their Orisha without judgement.

However, Reginald Prandi makes a statement during his interview about diversity and acceptance in Candomblé that I feel needs to be clarified. While it’s true that we don’t have concepts of heaven and hell – and therefore no sin – we do have concepts of good character and ethical behavior. In Yoruba it’s often referred to as iwa rere, but in over a decade of travelling back and forth to Brazil each year I mostly hear bom carater or good character instead of Yoruba words to express this idea.

When Prandi goes through the list of the different professions we find in a terreiro, he begins with legal professions like hair dresser, domestic worker and delineates to illegal professions like bank robber, murderer. He states that it doesn’t matter what people do outside of the terreiro, because what’s important is one’s relationship with their Orisha. While I believe it’s true that Orisha accepts everyone, and that belonging to a terreiro is a great equalizer (where you can literally have a millionaire and someone unemployed working side by side, and receiving the same treatment because the outside world is precisely that), I do not believe, nor has it been my experience, that Orisha is ok with illegal and unethical behavior. In fact, when we worship Orisha we are agreeing to work towards developing into our best selves by being more ethical and responsible.

There’s lots packed into this 13 minute documentary: